Photography Shooting

10 Things Tyra Banks can Teach You About Portrait Photography

portrait with catchlights in eyes copyright Aloha Lavina

Tyra Banks is a genius. She’s built a beautiful and powerful brand for herself and for her famous show “America’s Next Top Model.” If you have watched ANTM, you know that Tyra is not just the brains behind the show. She’s worked not only in shaping the models that grow up on ANTM, but has been behind the camera on a lot of shoots. Both behind the scenes and in front of the lens, Tyra has a lot of things to teach the photographer who shoots models. Here are 10 things I’ve learned from Tyra Banks that you could use in your photography.

portrait with smize copyright Aloha Lavina
Smize. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

1. The eyes are the pivotal points of a portrait.
We’ve all heard Tyra say “Smize!” to her models. She even had an episode where the models had to compete to use their eyes to express everything—the art of smizing. In a portrait the eyes hold the portrait together, and that’s why you always have to keep the eyes in focus when you’re making a portrait.

double portrait with emotion copyright Aloha Lavina
Bring out emotion. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

2. Bring out emotion.
Unless the face is contorted in a strong emotion, the eyes have to carry the emotion in a portrait, especially in a closeup. Bringing out emotion in the model helps to achieve emotion in their facial gesture. Tyra always coaches her models during a shoot, if she’s around for it. Once, she even made a few cry with her coaching. Taking time to coach the model on the emotion in a portrait helps to realize its potential for impact.

3. Motion and energy give dynamism to a portrait.
Motion brings dynamism to a portrait. But motion doesn’t really literally mean having the model move around. It means being able to direct poses and create an image that has energy. What I’ve learned from Tyra is that she often asks the models to tense certain parts of their body during a shoot. Finding out which muscles to sculpt a pose helps the photographer achieve a look that also speaks of energy.

double portrait with contorted poses copyright Aloha Lavina.
Contortion. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

4. Ask your model to contort their body.
Sometimes, the most interesting poses are almost ugly. Especially with her work that is ‘high fashion,’ Tyra asks her models to contort, to push the boundaries of their physicality and find a pose that works for the image. Often what results is an image that is as beautiful as it must be uncomfortable for the model.

light and shadow portrait copyright Aloha Lavina
Play with light and shadow. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

5. Play with light and shadow
One of my favorite shoots done by Tyra on ANTM is when she created shadows with things like doilies, lace, and cloth. She shot the photos outdoors, in bright sunlight, and told the models about her concept. What resulted from that play with light and shadows were some amazing shots.

portrait with catchlights in eyes copyright Aloha Lavina
Teach models to find the light. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

6. Teach the model to find the light.
Catchlights in the eyes are attractive because they give the eyes depth and character, making it easy to see the model’s ‘smize.’ Tyra is always telling the model to find the light during the shoots on ANTM. If a model is new or unfamiliar with the shooting process, you can help them help you make the image better by teaching them where the light is coming from. Sometimes, just telling them to look in a certain direction helps you get those stunning catchlights.

7. Make it about the fashion.
If you are shooting a model in color, it has to be also about the clothes. Sometimes, it could be about a simple accessory like a hat. Composing the photo using the standard compositional techniques like leading lines to bring attention to the clothing is something that Tyra teaches. Keeping this in mind helps you to ‘sell’ the clothing in your portraits.

portrait with hat copyright Aloha Lavina
Make it about the fashion. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

8. Model from head to toe.
This is really great advice from Tyra. Even if you’re taking a closeup shot of a model, you want the model to feel the concept with every bit of her (or him). Asking someone to ‘model from H to T’ or head to toe will make your portrait pop.

9. Start with a concept.
I really like the Tyra Mail that happens every week on ANTM. This is a note Tyra writes to the models telling them what’s going on. When there’s a shoot about to happen, she’ll include something cryptic in the note referring to the concepts they are about to interpret with their modeling. Tyra comes up with interesting, beautiful concepts that result in fabulous photos. Paying attention to your concept means you don’t just take photos of a beautiful person, but you are taking beautiful photos of a person.

10. Every model is an individual.
Tyra might put her models through makeovers that chop their long hair or make them ‘edgy’—but she does this because it either pushes the model to come out of a comfort zone and become more interesting (read ‘marketable’ as a model), or to challenge them to make the new look work for them. But in the long run, you can see that she appreciates their individual qualities and tries to hone those qualities to strengthen their skill as a model. She tries to get to know each girl by listening to them and making careful observations. Using the same technique, you can make the model a partner in creating awesome portraits by giving them opportunities to be themselves in the photos.

We can all learn from Tyra Banks who is model, photographer and a fashion visionary in one. Why not try these tips I’ve learned from her, and create some awesome portraits this week. Remember that awesomeness always ‘wants to be on top.’

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